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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

The first European university to ban bottled water?

Ban the bottle campaign in Olympia Campus, Washington

In the US and Canada many universities have banned bottled water in their campus. Who will be the first one in Europe?

In 2009 Washington University in Sant Louis became the 1st city to ban bottled water and since then many other campuses have followed the example. In Canada the first campus to ban bottled water has been the University of Winnipeg also in 2009.
Why is banning bottled water important? As a student of Winnipeg , Canada, put it:

Banning bottled water is simply a step in a broader acknowledgment that water is a basic human right, rather than a commodity. Rejecting the commodification of water by refusing to purchase and sell bottled water is a first, and important step. Putting the focus on clean, safe, healthy public water encourages our decision makers to invest strongly in public water infrastructure, and also pushes governments in Canada to extend that infrastructure to Northern communities. As students, we are in a unique situation within our institutions where there is a pool of critical minds, willing to take initiative and leadership on campus. We hope that other campuses across Canada will be willing to take the same initiative, and push back against water as a commodity.


Official sign in University of Winnipeg, Canada

In contrast to tap water, which is delivered through an energy-efficient infrastructure, bottled water is an incredibly wasteful product. It is usually packaged in single-serving plastic bottles made with fossil fuels. Indeed, milions and milions of tones of European plastic waste are the being disposed of every year. According to the European plastic industry in 2009 45% of the EU plastic was landfilled and 31% was incinerated which means that only a 22% was actually recycled. Increasing the recycling rates it’s important but in the case of bottled water it only makes sense to work on the prevention side. There is a great potential to reduce waste at source by just shifting from bottled to tab water.
There are examples of administrations and schools that have replaced bottled water, even in the European Parliament a group of MEPs demanded to stop the nonsense of providing bottled water in meetings –which causes 160tn of CO2 emissions per year-. However so far no European University has made the step. Any volunteers to follow the north-amercan example? What about the European institutions?

How to measure sustainability?

Is Zero Waste good for the economy? Sure it is! Does it show in current indicators? Mmm… not always. What’s wrong here?


One of the main reasons that can explain the current European economic crisis are something as simple –yet complicated- as indicators. The quest for GDP growth has driven the EU countries through very unsustainable paths. Indeed current indicators give an extra bonus to a throw-away society; for every piece of waste we generate, a new process of extraction, processing, transport, manufacture and disposal is triggered which the increases the economic activity making GDP grow. This explains the obsession for consumption of throw-away goods; the more garbage we produce the better for the economy! But this is true only when measured with traditional indicators. Common sense tell us that producing more waste can not be good for the economy, but according to current indicators it is.


For instance, if we stop buying bottled water in single-use packaging and change to tap water or if we start replacing single-use plastic bags for reusable bags we will be reducing economic activity as it is measured with traditional indicators. There is obviously something wrong with our indicators if sustainability features as a minus and not as a plus.


In the long run, unsustainable practices end up harming the economy so badly that even traditional indicators such as GDP show it but then it is often too late to act. Climate change is a good example of this; there is scientific consensus that global warming is taking place but too often measures to mitigate it they depress traditional indicators such as GDP growth -despite improving sustainability!-. Another example, home composting captures carbon, builds top soil, saves transport, collection & transport emissions and educates society but from the point of view of GDP incineration of organic waste features better despite vastly increasing CO2 emissions & wasting energy in the collection and burning.


There is no discussion on the need to replace or complement GDP as an indicator, the discussion is which indicators to chose: UNEP and the UNU-IHDP presented the Inclusive Wealth Index in June which measures wealth using countries’ natural, manufactured, human and social capital, and which is intended as a replacement to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and the Human Development Index (HDI). Also the European Commission has been working on indicators in the Beyond GDP, measuring progress, true wealth, and the well-being of nations. Many environmental indicators can be found here. Friends of the Earth also proposes indicators to measure Resource Use.


However the EU is still stuck in old and failed ways of measuring economic activity and the current debate on austerity vs growth can’t be more missleading and self-defeating. It is time to replace or strongly balance GDP with a new indicator such as the IWI which takes into account sustainability and natural capital. The moment that takes places Zero Waste will be given a major push and landfills and incinerators will be a bit more buried into history.